Thursday, November 3, 2011

Against the Reign of Online Education: Responding to the Rise of the Faceless Classroom (Part 1 )

This essay will be posted in a currently unknown number of installments. 

In the age of the internet, instant information is at the fingertips of anyone with access to an internet connection. Because computer-accessed information is so convenient-- and convenience is one of the chief information-age virtues-- educational institutions have understandably become attracted to online forms of education. An online course can exist even when physical space is limited, or when there are scheduling conflicts due to busy students. Moreover, the student of an online course need not spend a dime on gasoline, find childcare, or even change out of his or her pajamas to "attend school." It should come as no surprise, then, that online education is being warmly embraced and enthusiastically adopted by educational institutions.

Because contemporary academic organizations have become transfixed by online education's promise of a global reach and thus a geographically unrestricted student body (and further, a geographically boundless source of income), those concerned with pedagogy (and sadly, not all educators are) must ask whether this trendy educational exodus out of the embodied learning environment is ultimately of help or harm to the cause of true education. The fact that we can do something in no way means that we should. I love Blue Bell ice cream—more than any other dessert, in fact—but I do not eat it for my meals (not regularly, anyway) because that would be a most unhealthy lifestyle choice.

To continue the metaphor, if technology is like food, we must determine whether it is “junk food” or “health food.” As Neil Postman taught, no technology is neutral. What Postman meant was that in some way, every technology—for better or for worse— shapes the people that use it and, therefore, their culture. He stated that shaping power well: "New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop" (Technopoly, p. 20).

Because technology changes “the nature of community” and culture itself, no technology should ever go uncritiqued. The stakes are too high to neglect adequate evaluation of our culture shapers. Therefore, let us take a good look at that which is too often viewed with indiscriminate favor: online education. For the duration of this series, my intention is to provide a counterbalance to the prevailing sentiment regarding this topic. It should not surprise the reader, then, that this counterbalance will be predominantly negative. If this series succeeds in slowing gushing technophiles down so that they carefully reconsider their philosophy of online education, then I will consider such a litany of negativity a success.

To be continued...


  1. Interesting topic, Sarah. I'll look forward to the other posts. If you do argue against the concept of online education, I'd love to hear your recommendations for those who are non-traditional students, especially living in smaller cities or rural areas. For example, a father of three serving as a small church pastor who hopes to obtain an education to enhance his ministry (without leaving his post for 2-4 years to obtain it). If online education is not a viable option, what do you suggest for a person like that?

    You might address that in future posts, so I'll wait and see what you say!

  2. Thanks for the comment and for reading! Your question is a good one, and it will be addressed in posts to come. The short answer is that here I am simply arguing against the concept of online education being near or equivalent in value to traditional learning. I do not condemn the entire concept outright. Stay tuned!

  3. I'd like to offer a counter opinion. My son chose online classes to finish his accounting degree (after community college) for two main reasons. First was the cost saving. Living at home and taking online classes cut the cost of his education in half. Second, he is committed to serving in our church several times a week and didn't want to exchange that for time spent traveling to and from campus. He received plenty of classroom interaction during his community college days, and will gain mentoring benefits during his internship.

  4. Sarah,

    I have taught philosophy online for nearly ten years; and some of these have been couses in both western and eastern religion. I'm also not ashamed to come at it from a Christian perspective. My experience is that many institutions see it as a way to increase tuition dollars, with seemingly little concern for the quality of teaching. Furthermore, there is a degree in which it is "faceless," in that we do not see the eye to eye cues we give to each other.

    On the other hand my courses often require as much, if not more work than traditional classrooms (where students might or might not have done the reading before showing up to class). The writing requirements are just as intense, if not a little more intense as well.

    In terms of interactivity, students are less inhibited to speak their mind than when they are in the "brick and mortar classroom." My "classroom" is the "threaded discussion" section of each unit of my courses, in which students are required to interact with each other, with proper "Netiquette," and to respond meaningfully to my questions. When there is at least 3-4 responses to a question, I interject a Socratic question to develop community. ALSO, for nearly every class (barring Logic), but most importantly in the philosophy and the religion classes, students are required to write at least 1-2 pp. of a "Journal Entry" in which they must answer two questions: 1) What element of this unit (e.g., question/discussion/text), stood out to you? 2) How did it contribute to your understanding of philosophy/religion, and the world? Students often reveal more online to me than they might reveal face to face.

    I would also like to share that I have a number of students for whom the traditional "classroom" is not a feasable option. For example, some of them have chronic diseases and have no other choice. Some of them are serving in the military (one semester I had a student who was writing from Tikrit, and another from the Gulf of Oman). The courses I teach give my students a chance to develop themselves intellectually in ways that might not be otherwise available.

    Note that not all of my QA reviews have been stellar, but even seasoned educators will say that they sometimes have a "bad semester," and sometimes you get clear cases of plagiarism (but again, this is par for the course, as they say). But on the other hand, I have won awards for my course teaching and design, and receive letters from students, years after they graduated, letting me know about their academic progress (even if I never met them face to face).

    I realize that there are some "pirates" out there in online education, and they give the method a bad name. My experience is also limited to public institutions that have an online education component.

    Of course it is not for everyone. It requires self-discipline if you are a student (even though our assignments have clear deadlines). However I think that those who critique the method might want to find ways of seeing it from another perspective, and consider the possibility that learning does not always require face-to-face interaction.

  5. Folks, believe it or not, I am not universally against online classes. As such, coming up with exceptions to the rule and counterexamples are not sufficient to defeat my claims. This is a philosophical analysis of a technological medium-- not a blanket condemnation. Furthermore, I haven't even made any real arguments yet. So, hold your horses!

  6. Yes, neither have we. But when your arguments are forthcoming, so will our refutations.

  7. That there are rounds in the chambers and fingers on the triggers, I have no doubt. ;)

  8. Actually, Sarah, it might motivate me to actually write a positive defense of online learning...Hubert Dreyfus and the shenanigans of some online storefront universities, notwithstanding.

  9. It is possible for an online college course to be just as rigorous as a college course where one has face-to-face interaction with an instructor.

    Let me give a hypothetical example. Suppose there is a college that offers a class called "Philosophy of Science" and there are two sections of this class- an online section and a traditional section. All of the lectures of the traditional section are videotaped and the students of the online section of the class are required to watch all of these lectures. If the online students have any questions or comments about the lectures or anything about what they are learning in the course, they can email the instructor, post his message on the discussion board, or communicate with the instructor in a chat room. Students in both the traditional and online sections of the class have the same reading assignments. Students in both the traditional and online sections of the class are given the same exams- three midterms and a final. Students in both the traditional and online sections of the class are required to write two papers. The grading standards are the same for both the traditional and online sections of the class. This online section of the course would be just as rigorous as the traditional section.

  10. I've taught on-line for almost ten years now, and I also teach at a brick and mortar institution. I've actually designed several classes too.

    I agree with some of the commentators that on-line CAN be as rigorous as a residential setting for some disciplines, but from my experience, it very rarely IS. Worse, attempts to make it so are often discouraged.

    It gets down to your comment about it being a "boundless source of income." Most on-line programs are seen as cash cows and therefore are administered from a business perspective. In those cases, the goal of the program isn't so much to educate as it is to sell tuition, and you sell the most tuition by setting your standards as low as you dare (and they're often very daring) so that you can include as many potential "customers" in your system as you can and then keep them there as long possible.

    So, I fear that fighting for serious academic quality in many, if not most, on-line programs is a losing battle. To argue for rigor actually is counterproductive to their more basic goals.

  11. This is why I am being quite careful in what, exactly, I am arguing against. I have intentionally avoided addressing academic rigor, because, yes, you can easily have an academically rigorous online course. Rigor is necessary but not sufficient for a high-quality course.